Thursday, October 07, 2004

Speak to us Mr. Kerry!

There is a great article in the New York Times today about the Kerry campaign and religion that begins this way:

When President Bush took on the issue of embryonic stem cell research in 2001, he framed it as a moral dilemma. He summoned members of the clergy and ethicists, as well as scientists, to counsel him. He prayed over it. His verdict - he imposed strict limits on medical research using the cells derived from human embryos - paid homage to human life as "a sacred gift from our creator."

When Senator John Kerry highlighted the issue this week, he framed it as a matter of clinical science, surrounded himself with university researchers and doctors in white laboratory coats and disease sufferers. Mr. Kerry seized on the stem cell issue to portray himself as the champion of human reason and scientific progress versus what he called Mr. Bush's stubborn devotion to "extreme right-wing ideology."

The article observes that Kerry "largely avoid[s] discussions of faith" so as not to offend the "secular liberals...who make up part of the Democrats' base [and] often recoil at blending religion and politics." It argues that this decision is misguided given that "nearly three-quarters of the public want a president of 'strong religious faith,' and [that] a swath of independent voters who identify as religious [are] swaying toward Mr. Bush."

I couldn't agree more with the general point, but I want to add a couple of additional thoughts.

First, while I agree that "secular liberals" make up "part" of the Democrats' base, I think the larger part of that base is religious in some way. In any event, I'm quite sure the vast majority of Democrats would classify themselves as "values people." For a while it seemed like the Democrats were gunning to redefine, in a very healthy and social gospelish way, the values issue and that they were refusing to cede it to the Republicans. Now I sense a backing off. That's both a mistake and a miscalculation: I think the Democrats do in fact stand for many important values that aren't appropriately recognized as such, and I think that the base needs to hear them speak in that language.

Second, I wonder if Kerry's sense that he should adopt a "scientific" and "rationalist" stance is a product of his geography. As a native Southerner who has spent the past three years in the Northeast, I believe I know something about the geographic difference between the two regions. Kerry is from "back east," and, more specifically, from elite circles in that region. It may very well be that Kerry's senatorial, Massachusetts constituency is more secular liberal than progressive Christian. But the Kerry campaign has to adjust. It has a bigger constituency now. It has to win over and keep people like me, who strongly believe in God and in values, but who simply define those things differently than those in the religious right. Speak to us Mr. Kerry.


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